Skeptic News: There is no religion higher than Truth


96

Skeptic News: There is no religion higher than Truth

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


There is no religion higher than Truth


As promised, myself and another couple of skeptics recently visited the Theosophical Society’s building in Wellington to hear their National President, John Vorstermans, give a talk titled “The Ageless Wisdom”. The Society has a great little building on Marion Street, with a comfortable library of esoteric mystical books at the front, and a large main room with lots of wood and painted mystical symbols. It has a particularly Masonic feel to it.

Inside, John’s talk started by covering the basics of Theosophy – that the Society is interested in finding the truth of all religions. Although this sounds like a good skeptical approach to spirituality, investigating rather than taking things at face value, in reality the organisation felt like it was diametrically opposed to skepticism. Whereas skeptics have so far looked into spiritual beliefs and concluded that none of them have any of the answers to life, the Theosophical Society considers that they all have the answers; or at least a part of the answer. We were told that members like to focus on different spiritual beliefs, such as numerology, astrology, eastern religions and the Christian Gnostics, and that belief in pretty much any idea is okay.

This behaviour is at odds with the society’s motto of “There is no religion higher than Truth”, and made it feel like they really don’t take their motto seriously. It came across as the members being spiritual tourists, dabbling in esoteric ideas without actually committing to them beyond maybe just learning the basics and memorising a few pithy quotes.

As with most spiritual groups, a single opinionated person started the modern Theosophy movement – in this case, Madame Blavatsky. She has the usual back story: a self-educated maverick, eccentric, with fantastical tales about her past and accomplishments, and an unwavering conviction that she had access to a deeper truth than anyone else about the world.

Back to the talk, which focused on three main ideas that are apparently core to Theosophy:

  1. We are not individuals – we are all part of a single connected spirit. Each of us inhabits our physical body temporarily, and only part of our soul is inside our physical body. This spirit inhabits everything we see around us.
  2. Everything is cyclical, and what goes around comes around. Societies come and go, ideas are lost and re-discovered, our souls return to the source and are eventually placed in new bodies (aka reincarnation).
  3. Our purpose in life is to progress spiritually, and move up through the levels of spiritual understanding:

None of this struck me, or the skeptics with me, as very original. It just felt like a rehash of tired old New Age beliefs. However, the members were a really friendly bunch, and it was nice to chat with them, after the talk, about their beliefs and interests. I left with a handful of pamphlets and booklets, and will definitely be returning the next time there’s a free event.

Mark Honeychurch

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A Colourful History of Popular Delusions

By Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall

Reviewed by Jonathon Harper

 

Although this was published six years ago, I think it is a classic reference book that will endure. It is available in some local libraries, including the Auckland public library.

The previous survey, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” was published a long time ago now. It is a great companion reference for Lynley Hood’s analysis “A City Possessed” on the Moral Panic in Christchurch surrounding the Peter Ellis case.

I learnt several things of great interest to skeptics. For example:

The moon hoax used pseudo-scientific terms and quoted a defunct journal. It gave a big boost in circulation to newspapers that published it.

There was a case of anxiety hysteria in Auckland in 1973 about a smell coming from leaking drums in the Parnell wharf. Many people became ill until it was shown the substance in the drums was not poisonous.

Medics (as in a Canadan case in 2004) can suffer from anxiety hysteria. You’d think their training might make them immune!

Exorcism and religion can make things worse in cases of hysteria, due to excessive fear of bad spirits – as it strengthens belief in the imaginary causes of these delusions.

Sometimes harsh conditions can trigger hysteria, and so a ‘spirit’ can speak out or ‘cause’ absenteeism from horrible institutions or work-places due to hysterical symptoms.Sometimes conditions improve as a result; whereas the victims in these institutions may not have been successful had they just protested.

Self-mutilation can be an extreme way to gain attention, and can involve false accusations.

False confessions are common during public moral panics.

Sometimes, as with the Peron family case, psychiatric conditions are falsely reinterpreted as paranormal phenomena.

Finally, skeptics have in some cases managed to help defuse panics by effectively debunking false beliefs. 

Look out for my next review, which will hopefully be on the book NOISE by Daniel Kahneman.

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Voltex can save 90% on your power bill

I’ve seen adverts pop up recently on news sites, such as NewsHub and YouTube, that are selling a device which claims to be able to cut your power bill by 90%. Now, wouldn’t that be nice – if it were true!

The company is called Voltex, at getvoltex.com (although this should not be confused with an actual New Zealand business of the same name which manufactures residential electrical components). Voltex sells a set of simple to use devices that plug into a wall socket, which their website claims will clean the dirty electricity in your home. This apparently stabilises your home’s electricity supply and will prolong the life of your home appliances.

I noticed that the URL of the advert I clicked on can easily be manipulated to match the country they’re selling to, which just substitutes the word American for Brit, New Zealander, Australian or Canadian – they use the same graphs, the same numbers, and the same organisation names – like the Public Utility Commission, which exists in the United States but not other countries.

The advert is quick to name-drop Nikola Tesla, who is a favourite of conspiracy theorists. The internet is rife with silly ideas that Tesla invented fantastical, physics-defying products that would revolutionise the world but were suppressed by evil governments. Free, unlimited wireless power, an earthquake generator, a camera to take pictures of people’s thoughts via their retinas, and a death beam using accelerated mercury. This device was apparently engineered by three German men using Tesla’s ideas – presumably playing on the stereotype of German engineering being trustworthy. Vorsprung durch technik and all that!

The site claims that electricity companies (Big Energy) are ripping us all off by overcharging for electricity, and suppressing their Tesla-inspired devices. Although there are legitimate claims of over-charging for power in this country, I don’t think the companies are too worried about these devices ruining their business!

An image in the ad shows a meter supposedly reduced from $251 a month to $15 a month, which is even more than the promised “up to” 90%. If we add the protection of appliances to this, the device should easily pay for itself in the first month!

There are images of Facebook conversations where everyone just loves their Voltex devices – although weirdly they’re just screenshots, and a quick search on FB doesn’t uncover any of the people who supposedly commented on how amazing the device is. My guess is that the screenshots are simple fakes, easily made if you know how to use the Chrome Inspector for developers.

The advert says the device is “100% legal”, which is not surprising given that it appears to be nothing more than a white box with a funky looking green LED. I was thinking of ordering one to test it out and pull it apart, but at $74 and with no guarantee that the scammers would even bother to send me one, it didn’t seem like a prudent use of my money.

Thankfully a friend told me yesterday about a YouTuber called Big Clive who reviews fake electrical devices. It didn’t take long to find a video where he tests and disassembles a device identical to the Voltex device, in a video titled “Worst fake “power saver” plug yet” – which gives you a clue as to what he thought of the device.

Big Clive’s conclusion about the device is that, if it was wired together correctly, the device would either do nothing or potentially increase your electricity bill – depending on how your meter measures electricity usage. However, the device he pulled apart didn’t even have the main component, a large capacitor, wired up correctly – both the anode and cathode were soldered to the same circuit board trace. So, even if the science was solid, which it isn’t, the device was as good as useless. There’s a concept behind these devices called Power Factor Correction which may be helpful for certain commercial power loads, but definitely not for domestic electricity usage.

There are many other companies out there selling similar devices with similar claims – Eco-Watt, EcoPlug, MiracleWatt, Enersonic, Voltbox, Earthwise Power Saver, Power Saver Pioneer, Energy Saver 1200, etc. Big Clive has tested most of them, and it will come as no surprise to hear that none of them work.

Like pretty much any device that promises fantastical benefits (pain erasers, get rich quick schemes, car fuel additives), it would pay to be skeptical about this product and avoid wasting $75 on what is essentially a 10 cent green light in a 20 cent plastic case. Not only will it not save you any money on your power bill, it might just burn your house down.

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Does the COVID vaccine contain a microchip?

I’ve watched a few videos online from a recent panic where people show themselves sticking a magnet to their arm at the injection site of their COVID vaccine. The same magnet pushed against other parts of the arm will fall off and not stick. Could this be proof that there’s a metallic microchip in the vaccine?

We can look to history to solve this one, as well as trying out a practical experiment. Back in the day skeptic James Randi went to Japan to take on the case of Magnet Men – people who could stick objects to their skin, claiming it was due to some kind of magnetism. Let’s see what Randi’s solution was:



Talcum powder! Randi’s observation was that flat metallic or magnetic objects, like coins or neodymium magnets, would stick to skin if it was oily or sweaty – and, for most of us, that’s pretty normal for our skin. By covering the person’s skin in talc, the metal object no longer has that layer to stick to, and the object will fall off.

Not content to accept this at face value, I employed the help of one of my daughters to test this out. As I’m a somewhat hairy man, our first task was to shave a patch of hair from my upper arm. Having completed that, we grabbed a small flat neodymium magnet and tried to stick it to my arm – success! Once in place, even tipping my arm beyond 90 degrees and shaking gently was not enough to dislodge the magnet.

Next we covered the shaved area of my arm in talcum powder, and tried again. No matter how much I tried, I could not get the magnet to stick any more. Of course, I haven’t had the COVID vaccine yet, but still the magnet stuck to my arm without the talc, and not with the talc – suggesting that it’s not magnetism that’s holding the magnet in place. We then tried the same experiment with a coin (a 20c piece), and had the same results. Without talc the coin stuck to my arm, but with talc it just fell off. I asked fellow committee member Bronwyn to try this experiment, as she has been given the COVID vaccine. In her case, magnets don’t stick to her arm even without any talcum powder – I guess she’s just not as sweaty as I am!

Of course, there’s another obvious reason why this isn’t real – technology just isn’t at the point where we can miniaturise a powered microchip to the point where we can inject it into someone. The dream of nanobots is decades away, and the closest we have today that is injectable is an RFID chip for pets – and it’s not small. I have one I plan to inject myself with at some point, but I’ve yet to find someone who’s game enough to stab me with the chunky needle.

Beyond just getting a chip inside someone’s arm, presumably the government needs their chip to actually do something like monitoring our location, and do it reliably.

For location, the vaccine chip would probably need to have GPS. I have a small GPS chip that I’ve played with in electronics projects, and it’s not small. We’ve shrunk GPS chips a lot, but not to the point where we can inject them – the smallest is about centimetre cubed. And, that chip will just receive location data from GPS satellites, it can’t send any data. To send data, you’d need another chip and an antenna. If the government wanted to use the phone network, that would probably need another 1cm chip for GSM.

And then of course there’s power. Without power, none of this is going to work. RFID chips can be as small as they are because they aren’t powered. When you hold them up to an RFID reader, within a cm or so, the reader supplies the chip with a small amount of power which they pick up via an induction coil and use to send a brief signal with their ID. However, unless the government is following everyone they want to track very, very closely with mobile electromagnetic induction coils, the chip in the vaccine is going to need a battery, or some previously unseen method of converting either the body’s movement or biological processes into power. And there’s absolutely no evidence that any of this exists as usable technology.

Obviously this is all very conspiratorial. To believe that it is true necessitates us thinking that governments around the world are suppressing knowledge about super advanced technology. Technology that has somehow been designed, tested, perfected and manufactured without anyone leaking it to the press or stealing the precious Intellectual Property and selling it to rival companies. I’m sticking with the belief that nobody can make microchips small enough to fit unnoticed into a vaccine, until someone can prove otherwise.


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
[email protected]

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Skeptic News: Maxine misinformation, shooters on the run and an alternative to botox!


96

Skeptic News: Maxine misinformation, shooters on the run and an alternative to botox!

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

This Queen’s Birthday weekend  I’ve had the pleasure of travelling to Napier to visit my mother. Last newsletter, Mark mentioned sightings of UFOs in Hawkes Bay, which were likely lenticular cloud formations. Alas, this weekend has seen dull grey skies, so no such luck on my part.

Our attention at the moment seems to be very much directed at health-related stories. Alas, there’s much misinformation to be countered. While visiting in Napier, I happened to hear an ad on the radio about COVID, and it saddened me to hear that so much emphasis is being placed on actually dispelling the myths that abound – such as that you can’t get COVID from the vaccine, and that it doesn’t alter your genes! What a sad world we live in!

Craig Shearer

Sue Grey misinformation tsunami, and who is Maxine?

We’ve mentioned Sue Grey in the past. She’s the Nelson-based lawyer and co-leader of the NZ Outdoors party, and full on conspiracy theorist and anti-vaxxer.

Her Facebook page is where she seems to spread the majority of her misinformation, and she’s posting many times a day. 

Annoyed by Facebook’s labelling her posts with their COVID-19 warnings, she recently took to experimenting with different combinations of text to try to figure out what words caused Facebook’s algorithms to label her posts with warnings. I actually think she shouldn’t really be concerned as, from seeing the reactions from commenters, she’s pretty much preaching to the choir anyway. Facebook’s warnings are likely to fall on deaf ears. But, in an effort to side-step the algorithms, the COVID vaccine is now being referred to as Maxine! Is this a new cockney rhyming slang?

Sue’s other gems this week included a link to a video that purported to conclusively prove that viruses aren’t real, and that they’ve never been demonstrated to exist.

She posted a claim that the COVID vaccine causes Stevens Johnson Syndrome which causes peeling skin, amongst other symptoms. The claim was fact-checked by Reuters and determined to be false. In a now familiar technique, anti-vaxxers will take shocking pictures off the internet (pre-dating the release of the COVID vaccine) and falsely claim that they’re the result of the vaccine. 

Also this week she wrote an open letter to the prime minister and other cabinet ministers with the subject line screaming: 

OPEN LETTER No 2- An URGENT REQUEST FOLLOWING RESEARCH SHOWING THE “S PROTEIN” IN THE PFIZER JAB IS A TOXIN

In the letter she refers to the latest anti-vaxxer talking point about the spike protein (or S Protein, as they call it) supposedly being a dangerous toxin found in dangerous quantities in the bloodstream of people who’ve received the mRNA-based COVID vaccine (hint: it’s not – and the studies don’t show what the anti-vaxxers think they do. See David Gorski’s refutation of the claims.)

Shockingly, in the letter, she goes well and truly off the deep end, quoting the legal definition of homicide and implying that government ministers would be guilty of this by allowing the COVID vaccine rollout to proceed.

In a stunning demonstration of a complete lack of self-awareness, she concludes her letter with the following:

“Please find the courage to challenge whoever is driving this, and any who act on dogma rather than evidence, reason or ethics.

The future of New Zealand depends on your courage to step up and make this critical call for our people.

I urge you to listen,  engage and act in the public interest.

Please put aside your pride and the dogma, and suspend this program.

I am happy to assist however I can.”

Sue Grey lists a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Microbiology amongst her qualifications. It seems to me that little of that study has actually sunk in!

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Danger for scientists

We should be worried about the consequences of far-right conspiracy theories. In Belgium, Professor Marc Van Ranst has been the public face of science related to the COVID pandemic and the Belgian government’s response.

Far right rogue soldier Jürgen Conings has a vendetta against virologists and COVID lockdowns. Conings is a military shooting instructor and has gone on the run with a rocket launcher and machine gun for the past three weeks, currently evading police capture.

Professor Van Ranst is in hiding. Let’s hope that nothing like this happens here, though as we’ve seen far-right ideas have had deadly consequences recently in the Christchurch Mosque shootings.

FACT (Fight Against Conspiracy Theories) is a grassroots organisation that’s opposing conspiracy theories, doing some great skeptical activism work. They’ve recently worked on contacting venues hosting the likes of Sue Grey. Some may refer to this as “cancel culture” but in my mind, preventing dangerous and outright wrong ideas from gaining wide traction is the responsible thing to do.

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Anti-vaxxer blood transfusions

Sorry to harp on about anti-vaxxers, but there’s another story this week that has emerged about prominent American anti-vaxxer Del Bigtree. Bigtree runs ICAN – the Informed Consent Action Network, and has a slickly produced video podcast called The Highwire.

It turns out that Bigtree has been out of action for a couple of weeks due to a health condition. Bigtree revealed on his podcast that he nearly died from blood loss due to internal hemorrhoids. His blood pressure was dangerously low and he required a blood transfusion.

It appears he has some friends who are doctors. and they strongly advised that he seek medical help (i.e. go to hospital!) when the symptoms of his low blood pressure became  apparent.

When it was discovered he would require a blood transfusion, being an anti-vaxxer, he decided he didn’t want to receive blood from anybody who’d been vaccinated with the COVID vaccine. Somehow, their blood would be contaminated with those dangerous spike protein toxins!

Bigtree reported received a small transfusion in the US from blood that was identified as not being “contaminated” by the COVID vaccine, then travelled to Cancun in Mexico (by private jet!) to receive a further blood transfusion of uncontaminated blood. What a waste of resources!

All of this is nicely and amusingly reported by David Gorski (aka Orac).

While none of us should wish harm on anybody, even those who wilfully promote and profit off misinformation, the story does show how dangerous misinformation can be.

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An alternative to Botox

I rarely watch broadcast TV, but on Wednesday night I happened to see a little of TVNZ’s Seven Sharp programme. They featured a segment on acupuncture as an alternative to botox for reducing facial wrinkles.

There was no skeptical angle and the piece looked a lot more like an advertorial than an actual piece of journalism. 

The reporter, Te Rauhiringa Brown (who looked quite young, and really didn’t have any particularly visible wrinkles) asked how it worked. The acupuncturist gave the following explanation:

“So the trauma from the needles sends a signal to your brain saying that there has been some damage and so your body actually sends the protein which is your own collagen to your face and that helps repair your fine lines and acne, scaring…”

Yeah right! 

The segment then went on to claim that the practise has been around since the stone age – and that the WHO recommended the practise.

Laughably after the acupuncture was administered, the final process was some “facial cupping” and a “rejuvenating face mask” to round off the treatment. I think perhaps the face mask at the end might well have had more to do with the final result than acupuncture. 

The piece cemented its purpose by quoting the price as $100 for the acu-facelift, and the name of the business to customers viewers! 

Well done Seven Sharp for promoting more pseudoscience!


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
[email protected]

if you want to support us by becoming a financial member, or would like to check your membership status, please go to:
https://skeptics.nz/join


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Skeptic News: Non-Overlapping Magisteria?


96

Skeptic News: Non-Overlapping Magisteria?

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Non-Overlapping Magisteria?


Over the next couple of months I’m hoping to visit a few interesting religious groups, to get an feel for them – what they believe, how they act, who attends their events. So, all being well, after this week’s report into Christian Science you can expect to hear about the Theosophical Society, Druids, and maybe more!

Some have argued that religion should be out of bounds for skeptics, that the two spheres of religion and science are what’s known as NOMA – Non Overlapping Magisteria. Basically, the idea is that science deals with the physical, and religion the metaphysical or spiritual. This might be the case for any religion that avoids making any claims about the physical world, but I’ve not met one yet!

Although Christian Science (see below) is a particularly egregious example, religious groups always seem to have claims about how their god affects the physical world – natural disasters, answering prayers, healing the sick, making people rich, bringing happiness and contentment. All of these examples are instances where a metaphysical god is impinging on our physical world, and in each case that interaction can be measured by science. And, as we all know, attempts to measure these phenomena invariably fall flat on their face.

Often there’s a hand-waving excuse as to why this is the case – the effect is subtle, or this particular god needs to keep their interventions hidden so that people can have faith. But this kind of get-out clause should be no more acceptable to skeptics than James Hydrick‘s claim that stage lighting stopped his mental powers from working, or Uri Geller‘s excuse on live TV that he didn’t feel strong. The idea of a god who set the wheels of the universe in motion and no longer tinkers is hard to argue against, but it’s a rare believer who has faith in such a remote, untestable god. For the majority of religious beliefs that are accompanied by an idea that god is pulling the levers and pressing the buttons of our lives, I believe skeptics should not shy away from questioning those claims.

Mark Honeychurch

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Christian Science:

Neither Christian nor Scientific

 

For a long time now I’ve been promising to take a friend of mine to a Christian Science church service. He’s been interested in doing this because he was brought up in the church in America, but hasn’t been back since he was a child. Finally, last weekend, the stars aligned and we managed to arrange a visit.

We arrived a few minutes early, and headed into the Wellington Central building, which is interestingly designed – from the outside it looks a little avant garde, and that theme is continued inside with very organic looking columns that are reminiscent of bamboo, and a lectern made of wood, steel and rope strands.

Before the service it was obvious the church is not used to seeing new people walk through the door – we were asked if we were “good people” before we were let in, I guess as a way to make sure we weren’t there to cause trouble. Inside there were maybe a dozen congregants. The service started with a couple of hymns, and the organ playing so loud it was hard to hear anyone singing.

After the hymns came the sermon. So, what does Christian Science teach? Are they Christian? Well, yes, kind of, although I’m pretty sure most Christians would denounce them for being heretical. Like the Mormons, Christian Scientists have the Bible as their holy scripture from God, but also refer to a second, more modern text. With the Mormons, it’s the Book of Mormon, and with the Christian Scientists it’s “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” – a book written about 150 years ago by the religion’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy.

The sermon we heard on Sunday consisted of alternating readings from the bible and Mary’s book. What was impressed on us repeatedly throughout the sermon was that our physical bodies are not real, and that matter is just an illusion. We are made in the image of God, and because God is a spiritual being, we must be made of spirit too. Apparently it is the false belief that we inhabit a physical body which causes disease and death. Once you come to understand that matter is an illusion, you no longer have to suffer from disease. There was also repeated mention of the word “science”, but it didn’t seem to be the science we know and love today.

And that, in a nutshell, is what the church is offering – the ability to be free from disease and injury. Of course at times church members get sick. But this is the fault of the adherent, not the church’s teachings, and it is a product of their lack of belief. To help with this, the church runs a helpful service where you can talk to a person they call a Practitioner, who will help to remind you that reality is an illusion – for a small fee, of course.

This false belief that injury and disease are an illusion can be very damaging. Scientology’s belief that someone who has been through “counselling” and reached the state of clear won’t get sick forces adherents to pretend that they’re not sick, and avoid getting medical help. In the same way, Christian Scientists will avoid seeing a doctor for easily treated problems. 

After the service we were given copies of the latest edition of the Christian Science Sentinel. The current edition has articles on how racism is a product of the false belief that we inhabit a physical body, how trusting in spirit can help with dating, and some healing stories.

Before we left I asked if I could return to witness the Wednesday meeting, which my ex Christian Science friend tells me consists of church members giving testimonies of how their realisation of our spiritual nature allowed them to be healed from physical issues. I’ll report back when I’ve managed to visit them again.

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UFO in Hawkes Bay

Apparently a UFO was seen in Hawkes Bay late last week. Several people reported seeing a large rectangular shaped object in the sky at dusk, with green and red lights, moving strangely.

A MetService meteorologist has suggested the sightings may be of lenticular clouds, which are common in the area and are fascinating dense clouds that can look like a solid object in the sky.

Green and red lights are also used by aeroplanes to let people know where the left (red) and right (green) sides of the plane are, much the same as boats have – red for port and green for starboard.

Descriptions of “unexplainable” motion are often caused by movement of the person observing the object in the sky, rather than movement of the object itself. This is especially true when these objects are filmed on a phone – shaky hand-held cameras can add the appearance of very erratic movement.

Although none of this is proof that people in Hawkes Bay saw clouds and aeroplanes rather than UFOs, on the balance of probabilities it seems like a much more likely explanation.

New Zealand isn’t the only country generating UFO stories at the moment. The US is awash in stories arising from the recent release of military videos of UFOs (or UAPs – Unidentified Aerial Phenomena). My understanding is that military pilots are expected to film anything unexplained they see in the sky – as there is a chance it could be a national security issue – so it’s no surprise that there are videos out there. Unsurprisingly they show nothing more than indistinct blobs, filmed either in visible light or infrared, and recorded from military planes.

Sadly the US media, including major networks such as Fox and CBS, seem to be taking this all way too seriously, recently interviewing people who have already made up their minds that UFOs are real – and seemingly prompted by a 60 Minutes special on UFOs. Some of these interviewees seem far too ready to put up their hands and exclaim that something is the product of advanced technology, before they’ve even done the basic work of trying to explain it by looking into the videos and attempting to find a natural explanation.

I’m sure this kind of reporting is great for increasing viewership, but that’s not good enough. First and foremost, news companies should focus on reporting on the truth – and sometimes that requires doing some ground work and investigation. It turns out that a bunch of unpaid amateurs on YouTube have been able to do a better job than professional media companies have done, looking at these videos for information that can help figure out what the flying objects in question are.

Information such as data from a plane’s camera HUD (Heads Up Display) have allowed one YouTuber to figure out that one video shows an object about the size of a bird, flying at about the speed of a bird, and exhibiting movement like a bird’s flapping wings. Another has compared infrared footage of several of these UFOs with infrared footage, from behind, of known military and commercial jets, and shown them to be a very close match. A third has tracked down the type of night vision camera that has a triangular aperture, and made test videos showing that having the aperture partially closed and the camera out of focus can cause green triangles to appear on the screen when filming aeroplanes at night – triangles that look a lot like the ones featured in one of the most popular UFO clips circulating at the moment.

It’s not okay for the media to not do their job properly, especially when it doesn’t take long to find reasonable explanations for these “unexplained phenomena” online with a simple google search. And interviewing people who believe in UFOs, treating them as “experts”, is just unacceptable. At least our local paper, in this case the Hawkes Bay Today, managed to do a half-decent job of asking someone who knew what they were talking about if there was a possible terrestrial explanation for the recent New Zealand sightings.
 


Breaking news: Herbs for weight loss don’t work

A recent major report into herbs and supplements for weight loss has concluded that they don’t work, and that not enough is known about their safety. Erica Bessell, the lead author from the University of Sydney, points out that in many countries no evidence is needed that these products actually work, and of course many companies are happy to exploit that failing and sell a wide variety of unproven products to buyers who hope for a simple solution to the hard problem of controlling their weight.

The report is a systematic review of RCTs (Randomised Controlled Trials), and covered 54 trials that were of high enough quality to be included. There was a wide variety of products that had used in the various trials, including green tea, mangosteen, white kidney bean, African mango, veld grape, licorice root, chitosan, glucomannan and fructans.

Erica Bessell said of her analysis:
 

“Our rigorous assessment of the best available evidence finds that there is insufficient evidence to recommend these supplements for weight loss. Even though most supplements appear safe for short-term consumption, they are not going to provide weight loss that is clinically meaningful.”

Sadly, despite this lack of evidence, the global market for alternative weight loss products is estimated to be worth NZ $57 billion. That’s a lot of money being spent on stuff that doesn’t work – and of course this is just one medical issue. Remember that there are unscrupulous people out there who are happy to sell you worthless pills to “treat” pretty much any medical condition, from migraines to cancer.


Does the COVID vaccine contain a microchip?

I’ve watched a few videos from a recent panic where people show themselves sticking a magnet to their arm at the injection site of their COVID vaccine. The same magnet pushed against other parts of the arm will fall off and not stick. Could this be proof that there’s a metallic microchip in the vaccine?

We can look to history to solve this one, as well as trying out a practical experiment. Back in the day skeptic James Randi went to Japan to take on the case of Magnet Men – people who could stick objects to their skin, claiming it was due to some kind of magnetism. Here’s what Randi’s solution was:



Talcum powder! Randi’s observation was that flat metallic or magnetic objects, like coins or neodymium magnets, would stick to skin if it was oily or sweaty – and, for most of us, that’s pretty normal for our skin. By covering the person’s skin in talc, the metal object no longer had that layer to stick to, and the object would no longer stick.

Not content to accept this at face value, I employed the help of one of my daughters to test this out. As I’m a somewhat hairy man, our first task was to shave a patch of hair from my upper arm. Having completed that, we grabbed a small flat neodymium magnet and tried to stick it to my arm – success! Once in place, even tipping my arm beyond 90 degrees and shaking gently was not enough to dislodge the magnet.

Next we covered the shaved area of my arm in talcum powder, and tried again. No matter how much I tried, I could not get the magnet to stick any more. We tried the same experiment with a coin, and had the same results. Without talc the coin stuck to my arm, but with talc it just fell off. I haven’t had the COVID vaccine yet, but still the magnet, and coin, both stuck to my arm without the talc – suggesting that maybe this is not a real phenomenon. My next stop will be to try this out on one of my vaccinated friends, and see what happens.

Of course, there’s another obvious reason why this isn’t real – technology just isn’t at the point where we can miniaturise a powered microchip to the point where we can inject it into someone. The dream of nanobots is decades away, and the closest we have today that is injectable is an RFID chip for pets – and it’s not small. I have one I plan to inject myself with at some point, but I’ve yet to find someone who’s game enough to stab me with the chunky needle.

Beyond just getting a chip inside someone’s arm, presumably the government needs their chip to actually do something like monitoring our location, and do it reliably.

For location, the vaccine chip would probably need to have GPS. I have a small GPS chip that I’ve played with in electronics projects, and it’s not small. We’ve shrunk GPS chips a lot, but not to the point where we can inject them – the smallest is about centimetre cubed. And, that chip will just receive location data from GPS satellites, it can’t send any data. To send data, you’d need another chip and an antenna. If the government wanted to use the phone network, that would probably need another 1cm chip for GSM.

And then of course there’s power. Without power, none of this is going to work. RFID chips can be as small as they are because they aren’t powered. When you hold them up to an RFID reader, within a cm or so, the reader supplies the chip with a small amount of power which they pick up via an induction coil and use to send a brief signal with their ID. However, unless the government is following everyone they want to track very, very closely with mobile electromagnetic induction coils, the chip in the vaccine is going to need a battery, or some previously unseen method of converting either the body’s movement or biological processes into power. And there’s absolutely no evidence that any of this technology exists in a usable form.

Obviously this is all very conspiratorial. To believe that it is true necessitates us thinking that governments around the world are suppressing knowledge about super advanced technology. Technology that has somehow been designed, tested, perfected and manufactured without anyone leaking it to the press or stealing the precious Intellectual Property and selling it to rival governments. But somehow I don’t think the average person who is fooled by the idea that there are microchips in the COVID vaccine is worrying too much about the logical consequences of this one seemingly inconsequential belief.
 


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
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Skeptic News:  Court Cases, Vaccines, Vortices and Guerrilla Skepticism


96

Skeptic News:  Court Cases, Vaccines, Vortices and Guerrilla Skepticism

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

The news at present is very much concentrating on the COVD vaccine, and it’s been great to see a lot of attention paid to countering misinformation. Details below on the purveyors of this misinformation!

Wishing you a great week…
Craig Shearer

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Sue Grey court case

The week before last we saw Sue Grey, a Nelson-based lawyer and co-leader of the NZ Outdoors party, bringing a case against the NZ Government claiming that the rollout of the COVID vaccine was illegal under the Section 23 of the Medicines Act.

Section 23 of the act allowed the Minister of Health to grant access to approved medicines to a limited number of patients. Grey’s argument was that rolling out the vaccine to all kiwis over the age of 16 didn’t meet the criteria of being a limited number of patients. 

It does seem that it’s a stretch to call all people over the age of 16 a limited number of patients, and on this point Grey’s argument was correct.

However, the case was never about concern that the government was following the law on rollout of the vaccine, but instead was a full-blown anti-vax argument fest. A variety of arguments were introduced claiming that the safety of the vaccine wasn’t proven, and referencing the American VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System) as proof that vaccines, in general, were risky and resulting in many cases of adverse effects and vaccine injury.

Grey was petitioning the court to rule the rollout illegal and requesting that the judge halt the rollout of the vaccine. 

As it turned out the judge, Rebecca Ellis, sided with Grey, advising the government that the act’s wording needed to be revised. However, the judge declined to stop the vaccine rollout:

“For now, I decline to exercise my discretion to grant the interim orders sought. The adverse public and private repercussions of doing so are too great, by some very considerable margin.”

If you really want to see what Sue Grey is all about, you can review her video she posted after the judgement came out. It turns out, she’s a full-blown rabid anti-vaxxer, including claiming that the “cure is worse than the disease”, that COVID can be managed by drugs such as Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine, and that people should “do their own research”. 

The case was supported by Voices for Freedom (complete with their supporters holding placards outside the courthouse). To me, trying to deny people access to the vaccine is the very opposite of freedom!

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VFF reaction

I have a super-secret email account that I use to sign up to various mailing lists, including the Voices for Freedom mailing list. Boy do they put out some propaganda!

From their latest email:

“Emotions ran high this past week. Some of us allowed ourselves to feel hopeful that the judiciary would act heroically. We visualised a judgment throwing caution to the wind by finding that the Government acted illegally and that the Covid vaccine rollout could be paused.

 

Our dreams were half-realised. 

 

The Judge agreed that the Government was behaving illegally – but tripped up over the rollout issue, sticking to the script that we combat Covid at all costs. Even when those costs include enrolling every Kiwi over 16 in an experimental jab with a sub-standard injury reporting system and zero information about long-term safety.

 

It didn’t feel particularly heroic. Especially when the Government did what it seems to do best right now and tyrannically changed the law to suit them the very next day.”

It’s interesting to observe how they’re attempting to manipulate their followers, trying to paint them as “heros” doing what’s right in the face of a tyrannical government.

VFF run weekly webinars over Zoom to rally the troops. The past couple of weeks have featured “heroic” doctors – Dr Sam Bailey (who runs a YouTube channel with 240K subscribers) and Dr Alison Goodwin, who’s a maverick doctor from Hawkes Bay. These webinars, it’s claimed, have a limited number of seats available. I sign up for them in the vain hope that my signup might prevent somebody else who wants to see the content from being exposed to their dangerous misinformation. Does that make me a hero? 😊

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Simon Thornley

Yet another anti-hero of the COVID story is Dr Simon Thornley, of the COVID Plan B group who we’ve mentioned many times in the past. 

Thornley is an odd case in that he’s an academic at the University of Auckland, who should know better. (And he was an expert witness in Sue Grey’s case in the high court, mentioned above.)

Over this past weekend, Stuff published an excellent article by Charlie Mitchell on Thornley about how he’s gone down the rabbit hole and can’t seem to find his way back up again.

Though Thornley is a scientist, he seems to have a lot in common with the attitudes and behaviours typically seen in anti-vaxxers (and anti-science types in general), preferring to cling to flimsy, cherry-picked evidence, and holding on to positions even when the evidence is stacked against them. He’s certainly done his own research!

On one of Thornley’s theories that the COVID virus was circulating as early as March 2019. From the article: 

“At the end of his presentation, a slide notes many of Thornley’s references came from one place: A blog post purporting to describe “the manufacturing of the coronavirus crisis”, written by an architect in the United Kingdom who has no apparent medical or science expertise.

During a question and answer session, Thornley was asked if it meant Covid-19 had circulated undetected in New Zealand: “It’s very hard to believe we haven’t been exposed to the virus in quite a dramatic way”, he responded.

Only a seroprevalence survey – measuring the proportion of people with antibodies for the virus – would give the answer, he added.

Two months later, a seroprevalence survey was released. It determined only around 0.1 per cent of New Zealand had been infected with Covid-19. The finding “provides robust evidence to support New Zealand’s successful elimination strategy for COVID-19”.

Thornley, nevertheless, remains unconvinced.”

The article is well worth a read.

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Vortex Water

From the hard to believe it’s real category, we found out about a revolutionary product being offered in New Zealand – Vortex Water!

From their website, they explain:
 

“In nature, water on it’s (sic) journey in a mountain stream twists and turns over rocks, always returning to circular or orbital motion. Constantly regaining it’s (sic) power and vitality to reinvigorate us and nature.

In today’s world we force water through straight pipes with hard bends after thrashing it through a centrifugal pump; leaving it lifeless. Then we add chemicals to make our water safe to drink.

Then we choose to store our drinking water in clear plastic bottles, to be destroyed even further by sunlight and heat. A journey destroyed before commenced.”

The site has some truly bizarre products available. (Notably, the site looks like it was designed in the early days of the web – somewhere around 1999. Of course, a slickly designed site is no guarantee of the quality or efficacy of a product…)

Navigating to try to purchase a product takes me to this page (http://www.unityconscious.org/) I can buy various items, including the Vortex Energiser for Household Vortex Water Revitalisation for the cost of $397.

Interestingly the picture accompanying the product seems to indicate that the water doesn’t even have to flow through the device to have its effect. 


The more likely reason is avoiding having your plumber laugh at you when asked to install the ridiculous device into your pipes 😊

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GSoW

If you’ve spent any time on the internet you’ll likely have encountered Wikipedia – the community-edited encyclopaedia. Wikipedia gets a bad rap as it’s possible for anybody to edit the content and put misinformation on a page.

However, it’s a useful resource, and bad information does usually get weeded out. It’s a good first stopping point on a path to further research. 

Friend of NZ Skeptics, Susan Gerbic runs the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project (GSoW) which specialises in writing informative articles on Wikipedia, centering on science, pseudo science and the people of science (and pseudoscience).

From Susan:

“GSoW has just written 1,751 Wikipedia pages in many languages. Those 1,751 pages have been viewed more than 88 million times – that’s a lot of science communication.

The team has written 31 Wikipedia pages with a New Zealand focus, some of which include; Siouxsie Wiles, Puzzling World, Robert Bartholomew, Lance O’Sullivan, Claire Deeks, Andrew Digby, Christchurch Botanic Gardens, Margaret Hyland, NZ Skeptics, Jeanette Wilson, Immunisation Advisory Centre of NZ and more. These 31 Wikipedia pages have already been viewed over 201,000 times.”

An important aspect of this is that these articles provide important background about people of pseudoscience, often highlighting unflattering and inconvenient aspects that they would rather weren’t public. Case in point is the recently written page about Claire Deeks, of Voices for Freedom. When journalists are doing background research, Wikipedia is a good first stopping point, and having this information at their fingertips promotes a balanced (and not white-washed) view.

Susan is looking for new contributors from New Zealand. If you’ve got some spare time to devote to science communication, one of the most effective ways of doing this would be to join Susan’s team.

Susan personally provides full training on how to research, write, and maintain Wikipedia pages. And you get to be part of a secret community which runs on Facebook with over a hundred people from all over the world dedicated to promoting science and skepticism.

If you’d like to get involved, please contact Susan directly via her email: [email protected]

 


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
[email protected]

if you want to support us by becoming a financial member, or would like to check your membership status, please go to:
https://skeptics.nz/join


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Skeptic News: Cons, Cults and Crypto


96

Skeptic News: Cons, Cults and Crypto

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Cons, Cults and Crypto


Last week was a busy one. On Monday I visited parliament for a church service called The Power of One, along with another couple of skeptics. The event was organised by a group called Jesus for NZ (who formed back in 2017 when Jesus was taken out of the parliamentary prayer), hosted by Alfred Ngaro and facilitated by Simon Bridges. There was a lot of talk about Jesus re-taking the nation until everyone in this country is a believer, and restoring NZ to its “former glory”. Personally I’m much happier with NZ being a rational, secular democracy than a theocracy, but it turns out that not everyone wants a fair society and equality for all.

On Wednesday morning I took a detour on the way to work via the High Court, where Sue Grey was inside arguing that the government’s vaccine rollout is illegal. The building was packed! I spotted some of the conspiracy usual suspects, including Tiamara Williams in the foyer and Billy TK arguing with some security guards outside. It turned out that the guards had ejected Billy from the building because he was filming inside where it was prohibited. In the end he started one of his “liveys”, using his mobile phone to live stream his anger and indignation to Facebook. I took the opportunity to film him doing this, which felt very meta!

Finally, on Thursday evening a few of us visited a talk on cancer treatment, given by someone who runs a local holistic “clinic”. There was a lot of the same tired old nonsense about disease being dis-ease, cancer thriving in an acidic body and everything modern (including power points, wifi and microwaves) causing cancer. And then there was some new stuff, like that emotions are the root cause of all cancers, and that emotion is really e-motion: “energy-in-motion”. After the event we retired to the pub and submitted ASA complaints about the unproven medical claims we found on the clinic’s website. It’s always nice to be able to do something constructive about the nonsense we see around us.

Mark Honeychurch

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EvoRich will make you Poorer

A week ago I opened the LinkedIn app on my phone, and noticed a comment on a post that was made by someone in NZ who was an “EvoRich Consultant”. His profile didn’t seem to match what I’d expect from a corporate consultant, so I quickly searched Google for EvoRich to see what it was all about – with the suspicion that it might be some kind of Multi Level Marketing scheme.

I was not disappointed – it turns out that EvoRich is not just an MLM, it’s a CryptoCurrency MLM – or as they call it, MLCI (Multi Level Crowd Investing). What came up pretty quickly in my search was an alert from the FMA (Financial Markets Authority) which said:

“The FMA recommends exercising caution before dealing with Evorich… We believe Evorich [has] the hallmarks of a scam.”

The next search result was an article from the Otago Daily Times telling of a recent push to get people in New Zealand to sign up for the EvoRich scheme. Apparently some who have put their money in the scheme in NZ are busy running events to help sign up new victims, with hollow promises of big profits.
 

Next I found myself on YouTube, watching videos from the EvoRich 2021 Summit, where Kiwis and Aussies stood on an empty stage in what seemed to be an empty room in Queensland, telling a video camera about why they should invest in EvoRich, and why it’s going to be the next big thing in CryptoCurrencies. And they kept on thanking the same person, venerating him in a way that felt a lot like how cult leaders are treated – Andrey Khovratov. It turns out that Andrey has quite a history, having previously run Skyway, and then NEEW (New Economic Evolution of the World), and now EvoRich. And searching for each of these companies brings up warning after warning

This whole EvoRich scheme is sadly familiar, and looks almost like a carbon copy of the OneCoin cryptocurrency the BBC did a great job of exposing as a scam in their podcast series called The Missing Crypto Queen. Like OneCoin, EvoRich involves dodgy Russian “businessmen”, multi level marketing, the promise of a cryptocurrency with absolutely no evidence that it actually exists, slick looking websites that show you your “investment” going up in value, and lots of training on how to bring your friends in to invest in the scheme. However I have a strong suspicion that, even though it’s very easy to buy into EvoRich, it’ll be impossible for people to take their money out again. You might think that you’re becoming rich, as you see your number of WCRUs (crypto coins) going up, but like OneCoin I’m guessing that increase is just a piece of code that slowly increases a number in a database.

While trawling through EvoRich videos on YouTube, I was watching a video on how to use the website to manage your crypto wallet, and the presenter said something that piqued my interest. She said that the URLs at the top of her screen, as she was entering data on the EvoRich backoffice website, shouldn’t be used by end users, as it was just for demo purposes. Well, you can’t tell a skeptic not to open the URL and expect them to listen to you! So I typed in a couple of different URLs from the video to my browser, and the second one took me to the demo site’s API – an API is part of a website where software can ask a server for data. Although the site needed credentials to login, I could see that it was written in Yii – a popular web framework written in the PHP language for building websites and APIs. And the developers of the site had left debug mode on, which meant that all requests to the site were being logged, and there was a convenient link to the logs. When I clicked the link, it showed me all the traffic that the API had received over the last few months. It wasn’t much, but there were a few POST requests to the /login page – and as a web developer it was obvious to me that these were login attempts. Those attempts appear to have been made by EvoRich “consultants” who accidentally tried to use the demo site to login, rather than the live site. In the logs I was able to see people’s cleartext usernames and passwords – not an admin account, but the login credentials of different people from around the world who have been conned by this company.

I’ve let the company know that they have a security issue, through their email address of [email protected], so that they can fix it. But the company is owned by a Russian con man, and is actively taking money from thousands of desperate people, so I don’t think they’ll really care, and I don’t expect to hear back from them any time soon.

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Buy your own Get Out of Jail Free card for only $50

The website of an organisation called the Maori Ranger Security Division is currently selling ID cards that they claim can help you avoid being arrested by police, protect you from Child Services, make you exempt from fisheries quotas, and may even let you travel without a passport – and all for the low, low price of $50.

Despite the name, this group seems to have no official standing. They’re not connected to the Māori Wardens, and are not registered as a company or society in NZ. But maybe that’s the point – their claim is that they do not fall under the jurisdiction of the government of New Zealand, but instead have formed their own jurisdiction.

This appears to be a part of the Free Man of the Land, or Sovereign Citizen, movement, which is a fascinating phenomenon. The movement started in the US, and the general idea is that, though enacting a series of legal maneuvers, you can disconnect yourself from being a citizen of the country you live in – with the benefits of then not being subject to its laws, and not having to pay taxes.

In this case, the Maori Rangers have done most of the “hard work” for you. Their ID cards supposedly contain several pieces of legal wording that together give you freedom from government oppression. These include the initials “C.S.S.C.S.P.S.G.P.” next to an image of the old Flag of the United Tribes, followed by the phrase “Flag of this document contract postal vessel court venue”, the words “Sea Pass”, a claim that the card holder is a Diplomat and a passport photo with the words “Secured Party” under it.

From what I can tell, this is meant to convert you into being a maritime vessel, which helps to distance yourself legally from the country you live in. There are Māori and Pakeha versions of the cards, and at $50 I’m tempted to buy one and see how quickly I get kicked out of somewhere for trying to use it as a valid form of ID.

Apparently the group are currently trying to raise enough money to send 10 people to Hawaii, which will somehow allow them to register all Maori Ranger cards as valid passports.

The Maori Rangers even have a card you can apparently use in place of a valid car registration. It says on it:
 

NOTICE TO AGENT IS NOTICE TO PRINCIPAL
NOTICE TO PRINCIPAL IS NOTICE TO AGENT
LEGAL NOTICE
ANYTHING ATTACHED directly or INDIRECTLY (e.g. by Post) to this PRIVATE car or any of the contents therein Without prior written consent will be removed, by force if necessary, and will incur a fee of
$20,000 payable on demand
FAILURE TO UNDERSTAND THIS NOTICE OR notice THIS NOTICE IS INEXCUSABLE

Obviously this whole thing is bonkers. I hate the idea that someone might buy some card or other piece of nonsense from these people. $50 isn’t a lot to lose on the card itself, but for anyone under the impression that they have immunity from breaking the law, or receiving parking tickets, the cost could end up being a lot higher. Eventually they will have their day in court, if that’s what they’re looking for, and they’re not going to win, and it’s not going to be cheap. In fact, the Maori Ranger website already showcases at least one instance of someone attempting to use their ID card to get out of paying for a speeding ticket – unsurprisingly, the NZ Police were having none of it, saying of their attempt:

The court said such arguments had been considered and rejected by the Supreme Court and were “plainly unarguable”. Parliament is sovereign and its legislation applies to all New Zealanders irrespective of race. The infringement fees remain payable by the due date.

There is a tortuous half hour long video on their website that attempts to walk people through how to rebut attempts by NZ Police to collect fines, but I can’t shake the feeling that sending an essay back to the Infringement team talking about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the US Security and Exchange Commission’s website and the United Nations Diplomatic Privileges Order 1959 is not going to be very effective.

I’ve heard the Sovereign Citizen movement being described in the past as being very much like a cargo cult. Its adherents think that legal phrases are endowed with magical abilities, and that simply uttering the right phrases in the right order, much like a magic incantation, will somehow have a legal standing and grant them immunity. This feels a lot like Cargo Cult members, who are said to believe that emulating the actions of second world war American airmen will reward them with the same wonders and riches that those airmen brought to the Pacific islands back in the day. It’s a fitting analogy.

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The fastest hands in Russia?

A video from “LADbible” has been doing the rounds recently, showing members of a Russian fitness group performing feats of amazing speed. The video shows several clips of them punching something or someone so quickly that you barely see any movement, punching in circles in front of their body with a speed that makes their arms blur, and repeatedly punching something in front of them at an unbelievable rate.

https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=744481686247106

Each clip has some kind of “evidence” in it to show that it’s not faked – a timer running on a mobile phone, a TV playing at normal speed in the background, or a pendulum swinging, for example.

Of course, despite their assurances to the contrary, these guys are just trying to trick people. This becomes obvious when you replay the video at normal speed and look out for anomalies. For each apparent trick of superhuman speed, there will be telltale signs of video manipulation. So, how are they doing this?

For the single punches that happen too quickly to see, they’re simply removing a bunch of frames from the video when the punch happens. As long as the camera is steady on a tripod, which it always is, removing those frames isn’t very obvious, until you look at other things that are moving in the shot – usually people. People are constantly moving a little when they stand, swaying slightly as they balance on two feet. So when you remove frames from a video, those little movements become a small but obvious instantaneous jump or shift to one side. And as soon as you see that little jump, it becomes obvious that they’ve edited the video.

For the super speedy arms, the trick is slightly different. The shot is recorded at normal speed, and then part way through the video an editing tool is used to split the video in two somewhere between the person performing the trick and the device being used to show that no trickery is being used. From that point on, the part of the video with the person is sped up and it’s hard to see where the join between the two halves is. However, if you look at the person’s body, you’ll see that not only do their fists speed up, but also the way their clothing moves, the movement of their legs, etc all speeds up too. And anything else in frame, like curtains blowing in the wind, will start moving faster. At the end of each clip they slow the video back down, but never show the person going back to the timer – because the two halves of the video are now out of sync, and if they walked across the screen they would disappear when they reached the split between the two halves of the video, and the game would be up.

It’s a clever set of tricks, and I’m not surprised that a social media group such as LADbible, who are interested in getting as many views as possible on their videos, hasn’t bothered checking for these kinds of clues that they’re fakes before sharing the video to their millions of followers. Just so long as these videos aren’t being used to recruit people to a gym and take people’s money in return for the promise of superhuman abilities, I see it as nothing more than a bit of harmless fun – apart from the occasional person who may try it at home and end up accidentally punching themselves in the chin!



If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
[email protected]

if you want to support us by becoming a financial member, or would like to check your membership status, please go to:
https://skeptics.nz/join


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Skeptic News:  COVID, Vaccines, Space Debris and more


96

Skeptic News:  COVID, Vaccines, Space Debris and more

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

COVID vaccine rollouts continue to happen, and the more at-risk people here in New Zealand/Aotearoa are starting to get theirs. Still, there’s opposition from the usual suspects detailed below.

The battle against misinformation is ever on-going!

Wishing you a great week…
Craig Shearer

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COVID’s worst places

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the situation in India with COVID and how bad it was there. It turns out that it’s not the worst place in the world to be (though certainly not anywhere near the best either!). There’s an interactive map hosted by the New York Times that shows, per country, the rates of infection per capita.

As expected, India and Brazil are doing badly, but there are some countries that are worse. Interestingly, Canada currently has a much higher number of infections per day than the US does – probably as a result of the impressive rollout of the COVID vaccine by the US. 

South America, overall, seems to be particularly bad – with Uruguay coming in at an average of 73 new cases daily per 100,000 population.

But almost as bad is Sweden, darling of the Plan B crowd, with 47 daily new cases per 100,000 population. 

Of course, the infection rate is just one dimension of the pandemic. The environment in which infections occur and how they’re handled and managed makes a major difference to the outcome of cases – and in India’s case, their health systems are overloaded resulting in deaths that might have been avoided in countries with better-equipped systems.

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Voices for Freedom (again!)

I’ve been watching the Facebook page of Voices For Freedom. To me it’s staggering the output of their page, with their frequent posts. often several a day. They have over 7,000 people following the page.

At the moment it’s all about discouraging people to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Their latest post is complaining about the joint statement issued by the New Zealand Medical Council and the Dental Council concerning the professional obligation of practitioners to responsibly promote the COVID vaccine to their patients, and not to promote and encourage vaccine hesitancy (which we applaud).

Given social media’s efforts (half-hearted, it seems) to shut down COVID conspiracy theories, VFF appear to be anticipating their own demise, and are encouraging people to sign up to their mailing list, which would be much more difficult to shut down (or monitor, unless there’s some sneaky skeptics signed up to it!). 

This weekend they’ve been promoting the online summit “Truth over Fear” – subtitled “COVID-19 and The Great Reset”.  Here they claim that “big tech” is trying to shut them down, though I’m not sure I understand why that would be the case. That page is truly astounding! They claim that you’ll get “unbiased answers to your questions”, that you’ll have “will have access to 100% unbiased information”.

The presenters at the summit should be very familiar to anybody who’s been following the conspiracy theory/vaccine denial industry – people such as Robert F Kennedy, Jr, Barbara Loe Fisher, Dr. Bob Sears, Dr. Judy Mikovits, and V4F’s own Claire Deeks (also social media influencer and doTERRA multi-level marketer). I think their claim that you’d be hearing 100% unbiased information is pretty laughable, if it weren’t so scary.

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Who is considered a critical health worker?

NZ Skeptics were recently contacted by a journalist in response to an Official Information Act request which revealed the numbers of people and their occupations entering the country under the guise of being a critical health worker.

Shockingly there were eight people who were listed as osteopaths and two chiropractors. Our concerns are that alternative health practitioners are considered critical health workers! 

While we are disappointed that these practitioners are being let in, we don’t find it surprising. It seems unlikely that the Department of Immigration is going to be au fait with the subtleties of which categories of medical providers actually have scientific evidence as a basis for their practice. We would hope that the Department of Health would provide robust guidelines as to which workers truly are critical, but this is probably not the case.

This time last year, in the early stages of NZ/Aotearoa’s response to the pandemic we saw chiropractors offering to be essential health workers. My reading of this is that is that the press release reads like a plea by chiropractors to retain some relevance. Chiropractors, who are largely a hands-on service, would have struggled with the reduced demand for their services during that time.

Of most concern in the era of COVID-19 and the vaccination rollout is that osteopaths and chiropractors often express vaccine hesitancy and outright anti-vax views.

It does seem that organisations representing these vocations are doing some back-pedalling when it comes to vaccination. Indeed, we’ve recently seen a very good paper written in the International Journal of Osteopathic Medicine that expresses exactly that concern:

“However, we are concerned with the negative sentiments, ill-formed views and in some cases frank scepticism regarding vaccines amongst what appears to be small sections of the osteopathic profession. There is global concern at the growing ‘anti vax’ sentiment that is expressed on social media and within other intra-health professional groups and settings”

To our mind we see this as a case of osteopaths telling their own to get their house in order. We wonder whether any osteopaths in NZ are paying attention to this warning.

Ultimately this issue falls to government policy, and appears to be a product of the less than stunning job that successive governments have done protecting Kiwis from alternative medicine practitioners making dubious, unsupported claims.

As mentioned above, the Medical and Dental councils have issued guidance to their practitioners. NZ Skeptics would challenge the respective organisations for chiropractors and osteopaths to issue similarly strong guidance to their members.

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Long March 5B

The Chinese launch vehicle – Long March 5B has been in the news over the past week. The rocket was launched at the end of last month to carry the living quarters of China’s independent space station into orbit. 

While the launch of the rocket was controlled, its fall back to earth was not. The concern was that, with uncontrolled descent, it might land on a populated area. 

As I write this on Sunday afternoon, it has been reported that the rocket has crashed down near the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, though there were tracking predictions that it could come down on Australia or New Zealand. 

From a skeptical perspective, it’s interesting to consider the concerns expressed about this, and the attention that it has captured. 

As most of the world is uninhabited (with much of the population being clumped into dense spots) the chances of it hitting an inhabited area are extremely low. The lifetime odds of a single person being hit by space debris are more than a billion to one. 

However, the law of large numbers kicks in, and while the chance of being hit by falling space debris is very low, it has happened. Lottie Williams, of Tulsa Oklahoma was walking through a park at 4am back in 1997 when she was hit by a piece of a falling Delta II rocket!

Of more concern about space debris is the large number of small pieces of space junk in low earth orbit that could cause catastrophic damage to satellites or to rockets being launched into space. NASA has estimated there’s in excess of 23,000 untracked objects that have the potential to wreak havoc. It’s counter-intuitive but even a tiny piece of metal, because of the energy it has due to the speed at which it’s orbiting, is capable of causing a lot of damage. 

At present there’s over 3,000 satellites in orbit but that number is set to increase immensely with the launch of systems such as Starlink which plans to put 12,000 satellites into orbit. What will be the fate of all these satellites at the end of their lives? And what happens if a piece of space debris hits an existing satellite setting off a “chain reaction”? This is the space debris we should really be worried about!

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Skeptic News: Going Underground


96

Skeptic News: Going Underground

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Going Underground


I’ve noticed an interesting, and worrying, shift with some of the more extreme online communities recently. On the one hand it’s great to finally, and belatedly, see social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google hold people and organisations to account when they spread nonsense such as COVID vaccine misinformation. For example, just this week Advance NZ’s Facebook page has been temporarily removed. Local conspiracy theorists such as Damien DeMent, Lee Williams, Vinny Eastwood and Karen Brewer are currently concerned over suspension of their social media profiles, because they are perpetuating dangerous untruths.

However there’s a flipside to this crackdown, in today’s technological world where it’s becoming easier and easier to set up an alternative platform. Many of the people who are losing access to their social media accounts are being driven to places where it’s harder to keep an eye on them – alt-right social sites such as Parler and Gab, and secure messaging apps like Telegram and Signal. The US owner of MyPillow, Mike Lindell, is even threatening to create a new platform focused on free speech, which he’s calling Frank. Well, not exactly free speech – you won’t be allowed to swear or blaspheme on his new site.

In New Zealand these communities, groups and channels have names such as The White Rose, the NZ Liberty Movement, Counterspin, New Zealand Free Speech, Eyes Open, Truth Seekers and even Greymouth Skeptics (who are anything but skeptical!). This is where the alt-right are hob-nobbing with hippies, and far right nationalists are mingling with anti-vaccine mothers. It’s nice that these people are now less able to influence those on the fence with their wacky ideas, but I wonder whether they’ll become mode radicalised in a more sheltered, close-knit setting. After all, the last thing we want to see in New Zealand is another terrorist attack by someone with a horribly warped view of reality.

Mark Honeychurch

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Accelerated Nonsense

A.C.E., or Accelerated Christian Education, is a Christian based curriculum used in New Zealand – both in some Christian schools, and by parents who homeschool their children. The curriculum boasts that it covers from kindergarten to year 13, and that it is recognised by New Zealand universities.

The NZARH were contacted recently by some students who are concerned about some of the content of the ACE curriculum. They were good enough to supply me with a set of pictures they’d taken of a section of one book titled “Character Study of the Strange Woman”. This chapter focuses on Proverbs 2, from verse 16:

“Wisdom will save you also from the adulterous woman, from the wayward woman with her seductive words, who has left the partner of her youth and ignored the covenant she made before God. Surely her house leads down to death and her paths to the spirits of the dead.”

The lesson this school text book gives about this passage is that of the strange, or troubled, woman, and is basically a warning about how dangerous some women can be:

This is a person who has been abused and broken and has a tendency to be immoral… Being a strange woman is an inward condition, not simply an outward activity. A woman might be active in her church, but still have the character qualities of a strange woman… she will be a danger to any man who decides to establish a personal relationship with her.

The lesson then goes on to give a truly appalling analogy between these women and run down houses:

I once bought a little house that I was going to fix up and resell. It was extremely cheap and I soon found out why. Outwardly it was nice looking, but the inside was completely “trashed.” The man I hired to clean it out couldn’t stay inside for more than 15 minutes at a time because of its horrible stench. We called in exterminators to eliminate rodents, roaches, and other creatures.

As I studied the Scriptures about the strange woman, I thought back on our experience with that little house. In a similar way, a person can appear attractive on the outside, but be devastated on the inside.

I hate to think that every year hundreds of children in New Zealand are being taught these kinds of demeaning ideas. But that’s not all – a cursory search on google for Accelerated Christian Education brings up horror stories of over the top discipline, male dominance and science denial:

  • the act of love between two persons of the same gender is tantamount to “murder or stealing”
  • Evolution is a “sinking ship”
  • “If a scientific theory contradicts the Bible, then the theory is wrong and must be discarded.”

Both of the images below, misrepresenting the science of evolution, come from ACE curriculum material. I find it hard to fathom just how this curriculum ever managed to get approval in New Zealand.
 

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Christchurch health clinic bans vaccinated customers

An “alternative” health clinic in Christchurch, which specialises in colonic irrigation and coffee enemas, has announced online that it will not treat anyone who has been vaccinated within the last 30 days.

This news comes on the back of a school in Miami, the Centner Academy, barring its teachers from being able to see students if they’ve been given the COVID vaccine. The academy will also no longer be employing new teachers who have already been vaccinated. They argue that because the vaccines have not yet been fully tested, there is a risk that they could have unknown issues that may affect other people.

In fact, the school reports that it has already seen this happen. A letter sent out to parents said:

“Tens of thousands of women all over the world have recently been reporting adverse reproductive issues simply from being in close proximity with those who have received any one of the COVID-19 injections… No one knows exactly what may be causing these irregularities, but it appears that those who have received the injections may be transmitting something from their bodies to those with whom they come in contact.”

The local union, the United Teachers of Dade, rightly spoke up and called out this nonsense:

“As shamefully seen by the actions of the illegally run and uncertified Centner Academy, these schools not only teach misinformation and peddle propaganda, they punish teachers who try to protect themselves and their families.”

It didn’t take long for me to find a link between the Christchurch clinic and the Miami school – it turns out that the owners of the clinic are fans of David and Leila Centner, the owners of the school, and have posted online about the Centners’ recent documentary called Medical Racism. (The documentary appears to argue that it’s racist to try to convince people to be vaccinated, and to treat them differently if they’re not. To me it’s not a form of racism to redeploy frontline medical workers who refuse to be vaccinated – it’s just common sense.)

Finally, without wanting to be too trite, I had a little chuckle when I noticed the name of the Christchurch clinic. The business appears to be situated inside a residential property, and is accessed via a door at the rear of the property – which presumably is what gave rise to the name “Back Door Spa”. Remember that at the beginning of the article I mentioned that the clinic specialises in colonics and enemas; you can no doubt work out why I found the name a little humorous!

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Influential Biologist in New Zealand

Normally I would be excited to hear that a prominent biologist is in New Zealand, but in this case the biologist in question is Dr Bruce Lipton – a figure who is well known to skeptics.

Bruce “works” in the field of epigenetics – the branch of biology which looks at the different ways in which factors outside of our DNA can influence gene expression, and consequently our development – how we grow. This is a real branch of science, with some really cool findings.

However, Bruce Lipton sadly doesn’t actually do any real research into epigenetic effects. Instead, he tells people that each of their cells is a homunculus – a small version of their own body, with a brain, lungs, stomach, etc. Then he argues that if people believe something hard enough, they can influence the brain in each of their cells, and this will cause their cells to behave differently, controlling how genes are turned on and off, etc. Using this, he says that we can cure diseases with the power of our minds. Of course this is all totally made up, and has absolutely no evidence underpinning it.

As if that’s not bad enough, Bruce is currently here as a “Visiting Professor of the New Zealand College of Chiropractic”, and has been giving talks about not just his epigenetic nonsense but also COVID silliness. He talked at the popular NZ Spirit festival recently, claiming that people aren’t really dying of COVID, but just from co-morbidities. He told the cheering festival crowd that vitamins will protect them from dying of COVID, and that governments have been using the pandemic to deliberately scare us.

Sadly, looking at the online reaction to his talk, it appears that far too many people are being sucked in by his nonsense. All too often, the people who have a loyal following use their influence to recklessly spread dangerous misinformation rather than help to educate people.


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
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Skeptic News:  UFO Mystery, essential oils, psychic car crashes


96

Skeptic News:  UFO Mystery, essential oils, psychic car crashes

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

The COVID-19 pandemic marches on throughout the world, and this week we’re seeing tragic increases in deaths in India. Unfortunately it seems that the Indian government was premature in announcing victory over COVID back in January. 

While many first world countries are making great progress in rolling out vaccines it seems that the poorer countries are struggling. There’s potential long-term consequences for letting the pandemic run out-of-control as the massive number of cases allow for mutations to create new, potentially deadlier or more infectious strains of the virus. 

It’s clearly in all our best interests to support the whole of humanity to deal with the pandemic, though there seems little that individuals in our isolated part of the world can do to help. 

Being lucky to live in NZ where we’ve managed to isolate ourselves effectively I was able to socialise this weekend, attending a friend’s 40th birthday. There’s strong social norms associated with meeting socially with people, from hugging friends to shaking hands with new acquaintances. And wouldn’t you know it, I’ve got a cold! I’m hoping it will be over with quickly!

Wishing you a great week…
Craig Shearer

 

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Triangular UFO “mystery” solved

An interesting video has appeared on YouTube which gives a rational explanation for a UFO video taken by US Navy personnel.

The UFO video, promoted by Jeremy Corbell who runs a website called ExtraordinaryBelief.com, features supposedly triangle-shaped UFOs. The site feels more like a throwback to The X Files, but I guess it’s targeting a specific demographic that is into that sort of thing.

The “take down” video, by Mick West shows exactly how the triangular images were produced – they’re an effect of the iris in the lens of the camera used – for any readers who are photographers, they’re just weird-shaped bokeh.

It turns out that the UFO in the video was actually likely to be a commercial airliner as the ship from which the video was taken was on the Los Angeles International Airport flight path. 

Mick West comments on his video:

“New reference footage from night vision monoculars (including the military standard PVS-14) demonstrates pretty conclusively that the supposed flying pyramid UFO actually looks exactly like a slightly out of focus light in the sky – quite possibly just a plane, as the ship was right under a flight path for LAX. 

Some of the other lights are identified as Jupiter and some stars. 

I don’t think that means the Navy got it terribly wrong. This was initially unidentified (with the UAP Task Force Investigates), and they maybe even thought it was a triangle for a few minutes. But it’s not. It’s just some lights in the sky. “

So, it would seem that the more prosaic explanation that the images are the result of easily replicable camera effects is much more likely than alien spacecraft. That won’t likely stop the believers though!

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Essential Oils causing seizures

Essential oils are one of those trendy products that seem to be very popular at the moment, and they seem to be a great money-maker for their manufacturers and retailers, with the estimated market size of over $17 Billion dollars globally in 2017. 

Essential Oils are derived from plant matter, and are claimed to contain the “essence” of the plant, whatever that is. They’re typically used in Aromatherapy, via a diffuser, which puts the molecules into the air. Who doesn’t like an attractive smell in the air which may have some positive mental effects, but as far as providing actual proven benefits studies are usually small. 

One downside to using essential oils could be that they can potentially trigger convulsive seizures in some people according to a study in India, written up in The Academic Times. The study determined a correlation between the use of camphor and eucalyptus essential oils and seizures. While proving causation requires further research it seems there’s certainly an association, and it’s not implausible that inhaling these molecules might well have neurological effects. 

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TV Psychic to pay £100,000 legal costs in failed case

TV psychic Maurice Amdur, star of UK TV shows Maurice’s Psychic World and Four Rooms has been left to pay £100,000 in legal costs after attempting to sue an insurance company for his loss of his psychic powers after a car crash. 

The psychic, who claims to have done readings for royalty, heads of state and movie stars, claimed that a car crash, where his car was shunted from behind at a roundabout in London, caused him to be so racked by pain for years afterwards that he “struggled with the intense concentration required to predict the future”.

Mr Amdur was suing for £250,000 in compensation, but the judge threw out the claim saying it had been undermined by fundamental dishonesty. He claimed that he was unable to do readings for two years, but in fact had done readings during the period.

It seems the judge was onto Amdur, stating:

‘I am prepared to accept that Mr Amdur does believe that he has a “gift” and that he considers that he behaves with integrity when working as a clairvoyant, unlike others in the field who are “charlatans” as he called them.’

Amdur would have been awarded over £10,000 for his crash injuries, but instead the judge dismissed the claim and so he must now pick up the legal costs for the case. Clearly he didn’t see that coming!

 

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If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
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Skeptic News:


96

Skeptic News:

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Sue-ing the government


After chatting with Graeme Hill on Magic Talk recently about Sue Grey, co-leader of the conspiracy minded Outdoors Party, and her threat to sue the government, I found out that Sue was planning to give a talk on the steps of parliament the next day. So, during my lunch break, I wandered up to the Beehive to see more about why Sue thinks the government’s rollout of the COVID vaccine needs to be stopped.

Thankfully when I arrived the crowd was not very big, maybe 50 strong. It’s possible that there weren’t many people available to attend because of other protests outside of MIQ facilities in both Christchurch and Hamilton. I noted that there appeared to be more school children eating lunch in the gardens of parliament than protesters.

I had been wondering about who exactly Sue’s clients were. She didn’t mention it in her open letter to Jacinda Ardern informing her of the plan to take legal action, or the accompanying video. But thankfully one of her clients, Mark Thompson, was there to introduce Sue. Mark told the crowd that the COVID vaccine is not actually a vaccine, but rather a medical device that’s being injected into people – presumably this is an allusion to the conspiracy theory that the vaccine is a front for Bill Gates’ plan to secretly injecting a microchip into each of us.

Sue’s main argument against the vaccine is a little more nuanced than Mark’s, and is that Section 23 of the Medicines Act, which is the section apparently being used at the moment for the Pfizer vaccine approval and rollout, states:

“the Minister may… give his provisional consent to the… use of a new medicine where he is of the opinion that it is desirable that the medicine be… used on a restricted basis for the treatment of a limited number of patients.”

Sue plans to argue in court that, because New Zealand is planning to purchase enough vaccines to vaccinate everyone in NZ, this is not a “limited number of patients”. It seems that her assumption here is that the government intends to administer all 10 million doses of the vaccine under this provisional consent – and I’m not sure this is a safe assumption for her to make.

Either way, it sounds like it’s going to be a while before Sue gets to sit in front of a judge. She complained that they’re all on holiday, and that it might be a while before she even gets given a court date, which she expects to be in September. I’ll be watching this one with interest, as I can’t help but shake the feeling that this is nothing more than posturing designed to attract conspiracy theorists to The Outdoors Party, especially now that so many of them are looking for a home in the wake of the collapse of Billy TK’s Public Party and his political ambitions.

Mark Honeychurch


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A message from Paul, our Treasurer

We have recently moved to Memberful to manage our membership, and so far the process has gone well; thanks to all who have paid your 2021 membership subs (either via Memberful or internet banking)

It seems that some members have been confused about their membership status, due to the fact that they are continuing to receive this newsletter. To clarify, this weekly newsletter is sent to all subscribers of our Skeptics alert mailing list, and is open to both members and non-members. Details of currently paid-up members are kept in our shiny new membership system, and are not linked to the newsletter. Even if you don’t pay subs for a particular year, you will continue to receive these emails.

If you have been a paid up member in the past, and are unsure of your current membership status, please send me an email (at [email protected]) and I can let you know whether you have paid for your membership this year.

Regards,

Paul Ashton
Treasurer, NZ Skeptics

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The Pope is a hologram

I’m a bit late to the party with this one, but there is footage on YouTube from last year where the pope gives a blessing from an upper floor window. After the blessing the pope turns around and starts walking away from the window. After a couple of steps, he suddenly just pops out of existence – disappears into thin air. Some people have taken this as evidence that the pope was never actually physically at the window, but instead had been replaced with a hologram – and that this hologram had been turned off prematurely, before it had moved out of sight. Maybe a decision was taken not to risk the pope’s health during a pandemic. Maybe the pope is a lie? It does look pretty weird.

The video was broadcast on an American news channel. It turns out that there is also footage from other cameras, and in this other footage the pope doesn’t suddenly disappear – he walks into the back of the room, as expected. Case closed.

Except, why did this happen in the first place. Well, the camera was fixed on a tripod and totally stationary, so if the footage used by this one TV station was played out of sequence at all, only things that are moving within the frame would give it away. I’ve seen a fairly convincing video online showing that some video editing tools will loop a video clip if the length of that clip is stretched to beyond the amount of video available. The beginning of the video clip in this instance is at a point in time before the pope appears at the window, so looping around to this empty window shot while the pope is still in frame would make it look like he’d suddenly disappeared.

While this isn’t a definitive answer to the mystery, it at least has the distinction of being plausible – something the alternative theory, of a pope hologram, is sorely lacking.

His Holiness, the Pope. Now you see him…

…and, just a couple of frames later, now you don’t!

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Watch out for this new COVID pamphlet

Kyle Chapman, ex head of the New Zealand National Front, is one of several people planning to distribute misleading leaflets about the COVID vaccine around New Zealand:

Thankfully the claims in this pamphlet are pretty easy to debunk:

The COVID death rates in the pamphlet are way lower than reality, where in China, South Korea, Italy and Spain the death rate of the 70+ are not 0.24% as quoted in the leaflet, but around 8% – rising to 15% for those over 80. And for younger people, it’s not a blanket 0.24%, but rather the rate increases with age – from around 0.2% of people in their 30s to just below 1% of those in their 50s. You can read more at:

https://ourworldindata.org/mortality-risk-covid#case-fatality-rate-of-covid-19-by-age

The COVID vaccine death/injury rate of 5% is just plain nonsense, and part of a raft of misinformation circulating on the internet:

https://www.npr.org/2021/03/25/980035707/lying-through-truth-misleading-facts-fuel-vaccine-misinformation

The Israeli Health Minister quote about the vaccine killing 40 times more elderly than the virus is flat out wrong, and the 260 times more younger people part wasn’t even in the original false rumour, and has likely have been attached, Chinese Whispers style, at a later date:

https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/pfizer-vaccine-israel/

The Bill Gates quote, in full and in context, does not talk about lowering the global population. Rather it is about slowing population growth, and can be found in a talk about global CO2 levels:

“First, we’ve got population. The world today has 6.8 billion people. That’s headed up to about nine billion. Now, if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we could lower that by, perhaps, 10 or 15 percent. But there, we see an increase of about 1.3.”
https://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates_innovating_to_zero/transcript

Finally, the list of references at the bottom of the pamphlet is a who’s who of vaccine misinformation. Robert Kennedy Jr, Sherri Tenpenny, Dolores Cahill, Joe Mercola, The Highwire and our local science denying outfit, who appear to have fallen down the rabbit hole, COVID Plan B.

Please keep an eye out for this pamphlet if you see it lying around somewhere or being handed out in the street, and treat it the way it deserves to be treated. Throw it in the bin or, better still, recycle it, so that somewhere down the line it might be turned into something useful rather than dangerous.
 

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Homeopathic Hippo Sweat Sunscreen

Honestly, I don’t think I could make up something this daft if I tried. Thanks to an astute member of our NZ Skeptics Facebook group, I now know about a New Zealand company – Hippo Health – who are marketing a fascinating sun block for animals.

Their schtick is that the sweat of a hippo from behind its ear contains norhipposudoric acid, and that this acts as a sunblock – after all, as the company says, “Have you ever seen a sunburnt hippo?”. The company claims that this orange substance, when excreted, somehow quickly coats the entire skin of the hippo, and protects it from UV rays. From there, the company says that their homoeopathically diluted version of this product also provides sun protection when swallowed – and they hint that it should work on people as well as animals:

Does SOL Plus work on People?
On a daily basis our team at Hippo is asked whether it works for people too. Logically we would like to say ‘of course’ but because we don’t have clinical trials for people, our official stance is that we don’t sell or market it as a people sunscreen. We suspect there are a lot of people unofficially helping themselves to their horse’s bottles of Sol Plus and we welcome any feedback.”

There’s a lot wrong with this product, and the claims that are being made about it. Firstly, although tests have shown the chemical, and it’s red counterpart hipposudoric acid, do have some UV protective properties when applied to the skin, there’s no explanation of how this would work when taken internally. But bigger than this are the problems that come with this being a homeopathic product.

Homeopathy is a fully discredited pseudo-scientific idea about how diluted substances might help our bodies to heal – in reality, homeopathy just doesn’t work. So, it’s likely that this hippo sweat, when diluted in water to a point where no molecules of the acid are present, won’t retain any of the properties of the active chemical.

On top of the dilution idea, homeopathy operates under a “like cures like” model, where something which in concentrated form causes a set of medical symptoms will cure similar symptoms when it is diluted. So, for example, diluted caffeine (a stimulant) is said to treat ADHD and diluted onion (which makes you cry and your nose run) will apparently treat colds and flu.

So, if we apply this to our homeopathic hippo sweat (I can’t believe I’ve actually written those words down), this should mean that our concoction might be expected to help you tan. But no, in this case the principle of like cures like is thrown out the window, and instead diluted hippo sweat, when swallowed, is being sold in New Zealand as an effective sunscreen.

Thankfully committee member Jonathon Harper is on the case, and has already submitted a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority. Expect a short follow-up story when the ASA release their decision.

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If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
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Skeptic News: The Dirty Dozen and Dahlias


96

Skeptic News: The Dirty Dozen and Dahlias

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

You’ll no doubt be aware that the travel bubble with Australia was announced last week, and from next week people travelling between the two countries will have the benefit of not having to go into a quarantine facility for two weeks before being allowed to wander free in New Zealand. 

This has affected me personally. My wife is currently in Australia visiting family and was due to return next weekend to then enter MIQ. Fortunately she’s been able to change her flights to return a day later when the bubble opens instead. Reflecting on her time in Australia she reports that there’s an app that Australians can use to track their movements (similar to our COVID tracer) but it’s not widely used nor are businesses commonly displaying the codes to scan. We can only hope that the travel bubble works out and that we’re not plunged back into isolation again by less-than-strict policies on the other side of the Tasman. 

The pandemic rages on throughout the rest of the world, and while vaccine rollouts are helping, we’re collectively not out of the woods yet, and less privileged countries are having an even harder time of it.

With those cheery thoughts out of the way, I wish you a great week!
Craig Shearer

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Disinformation’s Dirty dozen

Research by the American Center for Countering Digital Hate has revealed that almost two-thirds of all misinformation about vaccines being spread on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter arose from just twelve individuals and their associated organisations. And on Facebook they account for 73% of all anti-vax content.

The report makes excellent (and scary/frustrating) reading, particularly the appendices which profile each of the twelve “sources”.

I guess it makes sense that sources are concentrated. People espousing anti-vax views are likely not coming to these conclusions independently, but instead parroting information they’ve consumed elsewhere.

The report calls for social media companies to do more to shut down these sources. Of course, there are then claims of breach of free speech rights (particularly in the US). 

It is frustrating that such misinformation is allowed to proliferate freely. But social media companies are driven by their profit motive. Allowing inflammatory misinformation to spread drives revenue to an extent. Ultimately the only solution is for people to be more skeptical of claims that diverge from science. That requires good education systems, and perhaps specialist skills in spotting false claims. As we all know, those sorts of skills are difficult to acquire as they tend to work against our human biases, and quite often take many years of careful honing.

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Dahlias for Diabetes?

One of our contacts noticed an item on TVNZ news on the 7th March detailing a product being developed by the University of Otago for prevention treatment of type 2 Diabetes. A complaint was made to TVNZ but they have not upheld the complaint.

The item makes interesting viewing from a skeptical angle. It seems that a researcher – Associate Professor Dr. Alex Tups – has discovered a potential use of compounds found in Dahlia flowers to lower blood glucose levels. 

The item reported that a clinical trial tested the safety of the drug and that researchers are now looking for volunteers to take part in a clinical trial to determine dosage levels.

I would expect that there would have been a clinical trial which actually tested the efficacy of the treatment in humans. Previous reporting on the subject has discussed trials into the effect of the drug on blood glucose levels in mice. 

The item reported on a collaboration with Aroma NZ, a company that specialises in processing natural ingredients from New Zealand into nutritional supplements for use around the world. From their website they list a bunch of products that they process including Green-lipped Mussels, Oyster Powder, Collagen Powder, Abalone Powder and Fish Cartilage Powder. 

There’s little doubt that compounds found in the wild have effects when consumed – this is the origin of the pharmaceutical industry. Considering the list of products above there are some red flags raised there. Those products seem to fall into the category of supplements that are used by the “worried well” or those with “symptoms of advancing age” to self-medicate. Many of these products have been promoted by popular publications in response to flawed studies showing some potentially amazing efficacy.

It is interesting to read what Aroma NZ is claiming about the efficacy of their products. I followed one of the links about their Green Lipped Mussel products to their News and Resources page. This shows a study from the University of Queensland on just 23 patients showing self-reported reduction of pain. Now I’m no expert in clinical studies but even I can tell that this wasn’t a particularly well-designed study that would convince me of efficacy. Yet, the website trumpets:

“In a recent landmark clinical trial by the University of Queensland, arthritic pain was reduced by 59% for people taking Aroma’s GlycOmega-PLUS™. This was a huge result and endorsement for this product.”

It appears that their modus operandi is to promote a product then find confirming studies after the fact to boost their confidence they’re selling something that actually works.

It worries me that the University of Otago seems to be looking to commercialise a discovery before the product has been well studied and has had its efficacy proven (at least that’s not been reported) – seemingly putting the cart before the horse, and it should especially worry skeptics that there seems to be a low bar for commercialisation of products that appear to have some compound that might have therapeutic effects. And why go the “natural product” route when, if the compound is earth-shatteringly effective, might it not be better to turn it into a traditional pharmaceutical?

Worryingly the item also features Alex Tups claiming that the root cause of Type-2 Diabetes is brain inflammation. We’ve referred this claim to one of our expert medics who made the following comments:

“Had a look at the clip and certainly there is no evidence that I am aware of that diabetes is a result of brain inflammation – it is generally accepted as autoimmune destruction of pancreatic beta cells (type 1) for reasons unknown or unknown causes of insulin resistance (type 2). There is no rationale for the use of dahlia flowers presented to the listener so it not possible to comment on the science of this claim. I cannot see a link to the A.Prof you appended who seems a credible researcher. 

I agree this is a crap report which raises expectations without any apparent evidence although I assume there must be some logic somewhere. This type of reporting needs to be science based with credible logic (imho) before putting it out to the public which only serves to confuse them.”

Finally, promoting products that include active ingredients found in the wild is particularly dangerous when it allows people to self-medicate. There is potential for dangerous drug interactions that can occur when doctors prescribe medications to patients, being unaware of the “natural” products they’re also consuming. 

I’m aware that I write this from the relative privilege of middle age where few (though not none!) of the effects of aging are making themselves apparent. I’m aware of the powerful psychological drawcard that these alternative medicines and supplements can have on people trying to find relief for what ails them, particularly if the mainstream medical treatments are perceived to be lacking.

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Scientology follow-up

Last week Mark wrote an interesting item in the newsletter around Scientologists using deceptive means to lure people in to their “courses”. We got some feedback from a reader in the US – we love getting feedback! – so I thought I’d share it. Ray from Philadelphia writes:

I live in Philadelphia. Many years ago in the early 1980’s, I was on a business trip to Boston. In the evening I had little to do and while wandering about the city I went by an old church that had a small sign outside advertising a personal  communications course the next two nights for the sum of $25. I had never heard of Scientology before that time, so why not attend? It was something constructive to do. 

So, the next evening I was there, paid the $25, and gave my name and address. Then it started. I am not sure exactly what “it” was. There was a very short introduction by a young “minister” after which people were instructed to face each other in pairs and stare into eyes and not to squirm.   That went on for a while and then the small group in attendance was introduced to the E-meter. And that was about it. The e-meter revealed that I had personality problems. It was a crazy one hour adventure.

I did not go back for night 2.

Not long thereafter, perhaps a week, I began getting mail at home discussing my course attendance, my personality disorder, and how I might correct it. There was a mountain of propaganda pushing very expensive courses and books, tapes, etc. And the mail kept coming for the next 20 years. Finally I wrote to them requesting removal from the list. That worked mainly, but I still get occasional propaganda mail.   

Scientology is as tenacious as it is crazy. 

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NZ Skeptics Membership

Many thanks to the people who have paid their 2021 membership subs. This is a final reminder to members who paid subs in 2020, but have yet to pay 2021 subs, that the 2021 subs are now due. Memberful have streamlined the payment process (it is no longer necessary to set a password), and this is reflected in the instructions that follow:

  1. Go to nzskeptics.memberful.com

  2. Enter your email address into the Email field

  3. Click the “Send sign in link” button.

  4. Wait for an email to arrive.

  5. When the email arrives, click the “Sign in” button.

  6. Once logged in, click subscriptions to view your subscriptions.

  7. Your current subscription type should reflect the most recent sub payment made. If you need to change to a different plan, click the Change button.

  8. If your subscription is expired, click Renew and enter credit card details.

  9. If you need to change your email address, name or postal address, that can be done in the Profile page.

If you have any problems, or would prefer to pay via internet banking, then please contact the NZ Skeptics treasurer (Paul Ashton) at [email protected]

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If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
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Skeptic News: Beware of Scientologists Bearing Gifts


96

Skeptic News: Beware of Scientologists Bearing Gifts

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Beware of Scientologists Bearing Gifts


I recently heard about someone who signed up on the MeetUp website for a conversational English course in Auckland, and when they arrived they found out that the course was being run by Scientologists. This type of bait and switch sneakiness is about what we’d expect from Scientology, so I decided to search google and find the course in question.

I used Scientology’s Auckland address in quotes as my search term – “136 Grafton Road” – and added “site:meetup.com” to restrict my results to just the MeetUp website.

https://www.google.com/search?q=site%3Ameetup.com+%22136+grafton+road%22

I was not prepared for the sheer number of meetings I was shown:

  • Success through Communication
  • Grammar and Communication
  • How to get RID of STRESS!
  • What are the key factors for being successful?
  • How to Keep Yourself and Others Well Workshop

One MeetUp group appears to have been re-used for meetings on totally unrelated topics, possibly through laziness, and had the following meetings:

  • Communication for Business
  • English Study Group
  • Rubik’s Cube Master Class
  • Predict – Human – Behavior – Seminar
  • FREE movie night Auckland
  • Open House for Coffee 🙂

If this was another group I wouldn’t be so suspicious, but as we skeptics know Scientology has a long and sordid history of trying to lure people in under false pretences, and then selling them overpriced books and courses under extreme pressure. There’s a big drive in Scientology to get people through the door, called “body routing”, and I’ve been to the showing of an internal Scientology video where exaggerated numbers were used, boasting of increases in course completion, conversions, body routing and many other metrics Scientology like to measure, inflate and promote. I’m betting that Auckland’s Scientologists have had pressure applied to improve their stats ever since they spent millions of dollars opening their new “Ideal Org” building. These meetings are likely a way to boost the numbers of people coming through the door, so that head office can be told of how much better they’re doing now they are doing things the “Hubbard” way.

So, if you hear of anyone you know in Auckland who is looking for a new social group to join, please make sure they steer clear of groups who operate from 136 Grafton Road.

Mark Honeychurch
Secretary, NZ Skeptics
 

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An Open Letter to Plan B

A new group called FACT (Fight Against Conspiracy Theories) has published an open letter to Plan B about their connection with Voices for Freedom. The letter calls on Plan B to distance themselves from Voices for Freedom and the group’s anti-science stance on COVID related issues.

The letter is signed by scientists such as Siouxsie Wiles, Des Gorman and Alison Campbell, as well as a few organisations including the NZ Skeptics.

Plan B have always framed themselves as a group of evidence based academics who disagree with the idea that lockdowns are an acceptable solution to the COVID pandemic. However their flirting with Voices for Freedom includes promotion of Voices for Freedom content, and Plan B’s Dr Thornley giving the keynote talk at a Voices for Freedom event. This really sows doubt on the idea that Plan B is an evidence-driven academic group. Rather, it suggests that their beliefs are more of an ideology than a rational conclusion, and that anyone who agrees with them is a worthy ally, no matter how dangerous their ideas may be.

For example, Voices for Freedom’s recent misinformation spreading, on their website, includes suggesting that COVID vaccines are unsafe, vitamins can help lessen COVID symptoms, wearing a mask is ineffective, Invermectin is a “miracle drug” for treating COVID, and PCR testing is ineffective. Of course none of this is evidence based, and much of it is likely to be dangerous.

They also accuse scientists of “flip flopping” when they change their minds. This one really gets me. As science is a continual process of gathering evidence and making tentative conclusions, scientists changing their minds as new evidence comes to light is expected, and perfectly reasonable. Trying to frame people who are willing to change their opinion based on new evidence as flip floppers is pretty galling, and shows either a lack of understanding of science or a deliberate attempt to malign it.

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Christchurch Skepticism Talk

Jonathon Harper, a new member of the NZ Skeptics committee, is giving a talk in Christchurch this Thursday (8th of April) on an Introduction to Skepticism. Despite the title I’m sure that both new skeptics and those who’ve been around the block a few times will get something out of this talk, and knowing Jonathon this is likely to be a fun event with engaging conversation and some interesting topics.

For more details, see the Christchurch Skeptics in the Pub MeetUp event at:

https://www.meetup.com/Christchurch-Skeptics-in-the-Pub/events/277063570/

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Should we worry about LED bulbs?

Stuff published an article recently about the dangers of LED light bulbs, arguing that the blue light from LED bulbs disturbs our circadian rhythm and disrupts our sleep, with wide ranging knock-on effects to our health. My skeptical radar beeped at reading this, as I’ve looked into this issue in the past and found much speculation and very little actual science.

However, the article mentioned a study from Australia, and actually included a link – which is unusual. The linked study was “interesting”, as the researchers attempted to guesstimate melatonin suppression in study participants by attaching a “spectrophotometer” to them, rather than actually measuring the melatonin levels in their blood or urine. Their conclusions about the effects of the light, because they weren’t actually measuring levels of melatonin, were purely based on numbers they derived from elsewhere. Because of the huge variation in how much blue light suppresses melatonin in different people (a 50x difference between the most and least sensitive people), and their lack of direct measurements, when they tried to correlate evening blue light exposure and people’s ability to sleep they found that the variance in their unknowns swamped the data, and no useful results could be gleaned. So, basically, the study was practically useless when used to work out if blue light in the evening causes people to have worse sleep.

On top of reading this study, I searched google for reputable sources. I found an informative page on the Ministry of Health website which warned about blue light at night. However, of the three external links they gave to support their claim, only one of them actually made any claims about blue light being bad for you – on the Royal Society of NZ’s “Blue light Aotearoa” project page. The other two links, to the International Commission on Illumination and the European Commission, both concluded that there is no risk from the blue light emitted by LEDs:

“The CIE considers that the “blue light hazard” is not an issue for white-light sources used in general lighting, even for those that are blue-enriched… The term “blue light hazard” should not be used when referring to circadian rhythm disruption or sleep disturbance.”

“There is no evidence that the general public is at a risk of direct adverse health effects from LEDs when the lights are in normal use“

From a personal standpoint, I recently replaced all of the light bulbs in my house with WiFi enabled LED bulbs. As I suspect is the case with most modern smart bulbs, I have the option of warm or cold white – as well as many shades between the two (and a rainbow of other colours if I feel like making my house look like an 80s French Discotheque). The warmer shades have a lot less blue in them, so it seems that even if the blue light from LED bulbs was an issue with early bulbs, it’s unlikely to be a problem nowadays.

Although I wouldn’t consider this matter to be settled, it looks likely that these blue light warnings are premature at best, and likely to be needlessly worrying people. At worst, they are being used by companies, despite a lack of any solid evidence, to sell overpriced screen filters, tinted glasses and warm white LED bulbs from companies like OSIN Lighting, a new startup in New Zealand who just happen to be mentioned in the Stuff article.

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If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
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Skeptic News: Follow-up – more on Oumuamua


96

Skeptic News: Follow-up – more on Oumuamua

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

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Follow up

Just a quick follow up on the Oumuamua story we featured in our newsletter this week. It turns out that local Victoria University Senior Lecturer in Astrophysics, Dr Stephen Curran talked to Kim Hill this past weekend, following up on and challenging Avi Loeb’s claims.

Have a listen to that!

Cheers…
Craig Shearer

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If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, send it to:
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